Hamilton, Outlander, & The Rule of Three

I have a new obsession.

As a historian, it was probably inevitable. As a die-hard hip-hop hater, it definitely wasn’t.

That new obsession is Hamilton. 

chernowYes, I realize I’m late to the game, though in my defense I have been using clips from the musical in my Anthropology class to illustrate how different cultures can interpret historical events, and utilize different methods to celebrate them. Which is a fancy way of saying ‘who thought you could talk about the Founding Fathers using hip-hop?’ (But let’s face it:  I’ve long had a bit of a historical crush on the guy.) Along with that, I’ve also been reading Ron Chernow’s excellent biography upon which the musical is based.

If you’ve never heard of Alexander Hamilton, I’m truly sorry for you and wonder which rock you’ve been living under for the past three years. In the 1980s, this was my favorite commercial (still is!):  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QLJ2Vjv2x18

And then, of course, a young artist named Lin-Manuel Miranda came along and, in 2015, turned a forgotten Founding Father into a household name.

But, that’s not what I came to talk about today. Last week, during my 37th listen-through of the Hamilton soundtrack, something hit me hard:  Miranda’s incredible use of the Rule of Three in the musical.

pointing+hand+vintage+image+graphicsfairy2If you’re asking “Rule of Three? What’s that?”, here’s a short definition:  The Rule of Three adheres to the idea that we retain things best when iterated in threes. It can work at any level of anything you’re writing:  from sentence structure, to character development, to story arcs. It works best when it’s subtle, when the reader takes 37 times to cotton on to the idea. Trust me, it’s in their minds! You don’t need to hit them over the head with it.

A great example (at the sentence level) is the Declaration of Independence. We all know it by heart:

We hold these truths to be self -evident:  that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness . . . 

There. In that one sentence, we see the Rule of Three used twice. There are three truths in this sentence, and three of those truths are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Read it silently. Read it aloud. Notice the rhythm? That’s what makes this such great writing. The rhythm helps us remember it as well. It drives the points home.

Another great example is from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech:

“And when this happens, and when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: “Free at last. Free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.”

Notice especially the last three lines. All of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics. And then, of course, the three-fold repetition of free at last. King was a gift writer and speaker. He knew what he was doing. (Fun Fact:  most of that speech was off the cuff. Improvised. For more on that bombshell, you can read this story from Forbes:  https://www.forbes.com/sites/carminegallo/2013/08/27/public-speaking-how-mlk-improvised-second-half-of-dream-speech/#581ae2f25c5b)

My major lightbulb moment coincided with something Chernow said in the book, that Hamilton – at least in his early days – thought dueling was a preferred way to uphold one’s honor, and that in certain circumstances, one must fight. Chernow also alluded to the fact that we suspect Hamilton may have been involved in more duels than That Most Famous One, either as a participant, a second, or at the very least, an adviser.

Yet only three are used in the musical.

  • The first duel:  Hamilton acts as second to his best friend John Laurens, in a duel against Charles Lee. Lee was shot in the side, but survived; both men walked away with honor intact.
  • The second duel:  Hamilton advises his eldest son, Phillip, that if his honor needs to be upheld, he should fight; Phillip does, and is killed. This is a complete reversal of the first duel; we expected Phillip to survive, but he didn’t. Also, it’s presaged by the music:  the song for the first duel, ‘Ten Duel Commandments,’ is echoed later in the song ‘Take a Break,’ in which then-nine-year-old Phillip is learning to count in French.
  • The third duel:  Hamilton and Burr face off. And we all know how that ends.

Each time, with each duel, there’s rising tension – and rising stakes. The first time, Hamilton’s reputation, and best friend, are at risk; the second, his son; the third, his own life. It’s a perfect use of the Rule of Three. But it’s not the only way you can use it.

At the story arc level, the Rule of Three can be used in several different ways. You may use the same motif or theme three times. A character may appear three times. A similar scene may occur three times. The trick is to make sure that each of them serves a purpose. The first two times, the character may solve the problem easily, and then lose the third time. Think about Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. There are three tests for the Champions to pass. Harry survives the first and second one, but the third one . . . This is a pattern known as ‘success-success-reversal.’ You set your readers up to expect your characters will succeed that third time – but of course, your readers are smart and they know that can’t happen. Therefore, you’re increasing the tension for them. They expect the reversal. Then, it’s up to you to pull it off in a way that’s both surprising and satisfying.

You could also use the Rule of Three to let your characters learn from their mistakes:  failure, failure, success. This can be used to demonstrate that a character has changed over the course of the story arc, and their new skills, or the ways in which they’ve changed, mean they’re ready for the climax of the book.

I’m considering how to use the Rule of Three in the novel I’m currently writing. It’s pretty powerful and effective if you can do it! Take, for example, Diana Gabaldon and Outlander. Claire Randall Fraser goes back in time, and meets Captain Jonathan Randall – the ancestor of Claire’s husband, and a ‘bloody filthy pervert,’ as Claire later describes him. In their first official meeting, he beats Claire; in their second, he tries to rape her. Gabaldon sets it up perfectly, so we know that if there is a third encounter with Jonathan Wolverton Randall, it will not be pleasant. Needless to say, there is a third encounter. It is not pleasant. It is also, however, not Claire who is in the most danger in that scene. Gabaldon escalates the tension, but also gives us a reversal.

So how can you use it? I’m still working on it! But I think I have at least one way figured out; it’s just going to take some cutting and some rewrites to make it work. But hopefully, when I’m done, those three scenes will be far more powerful, and advance the story more effectively, than the myriad little scenes I’d had before.

 

https://www.dianagabaldon.com/other-projects/the-cannibals-art-how-writing-really-works/the-cannibals-art-jamie-and-the-rule-of-three/  – this is probably where I first learned about the Rule of Three! Diana Gabaldon lays out how to create a perfect Rule of Three in your novel, using Outlander as an example.

https://amyraby.com/2013/08/26/writing-technique-the-rule-of-three/ – another good blog post about the Rule of Three

https://www.enchantingmarketing.com/rule-of-three-in-writing/ – this is a great little article that addresses the Rule of Three at the macro level – but you can see how powerful, yet subtle, it is! If it works in marketing, it can work in literature.

 

 

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Off the Brakes – Back to Writing

I haven’t written lately, mostly because I’ve been a.) really busy with the end of the semester, b.) without any ideas of what to write, and c.) a little depressed with the coming of winter. And frankly, I’ve been putting the brakes on my writing.

I’ve talked about this before, but to me, writing is like driving. You’re not great at it when you start. I remember the first time my mom let me drive our old 1985 Mazda stick shift. I made it to the end of our dirt road just fine, put the car back in first, and when Mom said turn right, I did. Right into the ditch. She never told me to stop turning, after all! But with practice, we all get better. Every single thing we learn is a new skill. Some of us prefer automatics; others stick shifts. Some of us have both. Some of us like convertibles, others minivans, others sports cars. Some of us never get away from driving in the 3 and 9 positions; others drive with our knees while we do ‘YMCA’ with our hands. (Not that I do that or anything.)

About a month ago I gave my friend a copy of my work in progress. It’s definitely not his genre – his favorite book is The Godfather, and I think his second favorite is basically anything by or about Theodore Roosevelt, so an urban fantasy about ghosts was, I knew, going to be a stretch for him – but I trust his judgement. Plus, he’s well-read, so I knew that where I was most struggling with this book – the plot structure – was where he could really zoom in and help me.

Then, over the last week, I started having doubts. Not about giving him the book – about the book itself. Again. This is what I always do – I run through the things that might or might not be true, might or might not be wrong, and I freak out. Put the brakes on the whole thing. Go back through. Rip it all up and burn it down and start over. And in the end, I think for a while it’s better – but then, the cycle starts over and I’m right back where I started.

In fact, it’s been so bad lately that I haven’t even been able to write on the sequel – I know more or less what revisions I want to make and I was able to work on it a little last week and felt pretty good about that, but since then, nope. Again, the doubts come running in and the brakes get put on. It’s sort of like driving a Formula One car, I imagine – you have to drive fast, you have to be 100% committed to putting balls to the wall, but going 200 mph is so freaking scary, and when you add in another 15 or 20 cars and put them on the same track – well, you can either put your foot on the gas or the brakes. Brakes are bad in a Formula One race. Brakes are bad in writing, too.

And I’ve put the brakes on lately.

In fact, last night I called him and said, “It’s all just a waste of time. It took me ten years to put that piece of crap in your hands!”

“It hasn’t been a waste of time,” he said. “You’ve been doing something you love, and you’ve been getting better.”

It took a little while, but he convinced me to not give up quite yet. Admitted it’s not his genre, but that so far he’s not finding anything glaring. For now, at least, it’s enough to get me back to the coffee shop, with the Hamilton soundtrack on my earbuds (my new obsession!), and back to writing.

Foot off the brake. Back on the track.

 

Deadly Perfection – Why It Kills Writers (and our novels!)

“A poem is never finished – only abandoned.” – Paul Valery

Have you ever been frog-marched to a particular session at a writing conference because your writing friends are absolutely convinced you HAVE to be at that session?

OH. Good. I’m not alone! 🙂

Last Saturday, I attended the Nimrod Writer’s Conference at the University of Tulsa on Saturday with a group of fellow writer friends. One of the sessions was cleverly titled, “How do I Know When I’m  Done? Strategies for Revision.” That’s the one I was forced to attend. Seriously. You’d think I had a problem with finishing novels or something . . .

This was a panel session, meaning that four authors held a discussion with the audience about their revision strategies and – yes – knowing when you’re done. Three were fiction writers; one was a poet, so they had varying points of view about this issue!

For me – as for many, many, many writers, maybe even you! – perfection is the siren call. We know it’s a siren call. We know that by following it, we are abandoning all else. We know that by trying to find it, we’re risking running ashore, having our novels crash and burn, having ourselves crash and burn. That’s what sirens do. They make you destroy yourself. Perfection is a Siren. She’s insidious and seductive, and she makes you think one more draft, one more set of rewrites, moving this scene here and tightening this, creating a better motive for this character . . . ad infinitum . . . and then it will be done because it will be Perfect. 

I am a perfectionist. I know whereof I speak. I also know that perfection is not achievable. So did the panelists. But for them as well, it’s a siren song that’s hard to resist. So how do they do it? Well, as one put it, “Perfection is the enemy of the paycheck.” When you’re a published author and on a deadline, you just don’t have time for perfection! It has to get as close as you can get it by the deadline, and then you have to let it go. (Though at least one admitted that when your intuition tells you the novel isn’t right, you should listen to your intuition . . . because otherwise, your lovely, sweet, supportive editor will call you and in the nicest voice possible, say, “Oh, honey . . . NO.”)

However, for poet Patricia Smith, it’s a little different. She has more time to work on her poems. She performs her poetry live, and so she gets feedback on it constantly. Or, as she said, “Perfection is fluid, it changes from audience to audience. Perfection is a shifting thing, depending on the needs of the people I’m writing for.”

So perfection isn’t a realistic goal. So . . . you’re off the hook, right?! No edits! No rewrites! One draft and you’re done! Right?

WRONG.

Perfection may not be achievable. But in today’s world of publishing, we have to get as freaking close to it as we possible can. Your first draft, as my friend and novelist Debra Dockter says, is a sandbox; you put up railroad ties and pour in the sand, and then you get to play in it. Revisions. Revisions are where we pull out ideas of theme, deepen character motivation, establish settings. Or, as one panelist put it,

“Revision is where the magic is.” 

But. How long those revisions take is another matter entirely. If you’re on deadline – well, in the words of one panelist, “Deadlines are a great way of knowing when you’re done.” You might get a small grace period, but you’ll be overnighting that thing to New York in the morning for sure.

pointing+hand+vintage+image+graphicsfairy2What resonated with me, though, was the comment made by one author on the panel. She said the danger of taking years to write a novel is that we grow, change, learn. We’re not stagnant. 

This one made me sit up and take note. That’s why I put my handy-dandy nota bene icon next to it. I know this. I know this firsthand. I’ve seen my writing grow and change over the years – yes, since I’ve been working on this series! I’ve gotten older. My perceptions have changed. The core of who I am hasn’t – but my writing style, my world-building, my word choices, have all changed. And my characters have, I hoped, kept pace a little. Grown and deepened as well.

But that’s the problem. Every time we evolve, we look at the novel with a slightly different outlook. And that outlook makes us go back to revisions. Some are good. Some are redundant, unnecessary. Who can say if taking nine years to write a novel is good or not? Maybe it takes that long for some writers to mature into their voices, to develop the skills to pull off a novel. As Patricia Smith put it, “Sometimes things don’t work because they’re asking for something we don’t know how to do at the time.” We mature as writers. We figure out solutions to things that were unsolvable a year ago, two years ago.

And at the same time, we run the risk of putting off the inevitable.

So I’ve made a commitment to myself. And now I’m putting that on paper. My novels will not be perfect. That’s a hard, bitter thing to accept, but I guess I can work up to that. What I HAVE to do, though, for myself and my characters, is get the damn thing done. Finish this last round of edits, and take a deep breath, and send it out into the world, knowing it won’t be perfect. Knowing there will be rejections, and maybe an offer, and if there are offers, there will be more rewrites, more edits.

If we ever want to be published, we have to accept the sad fact:  our novels are never finished, only abandoned. And although I known this blog post isn’t perfect, I’m publishing it anyway!

(And just so you know we’re not alone, here’s a few links to other articles on overcoming perfectionism in writing!)

https://thewritepractice.com/writing-perfectionism/

https://www.craftyourcontent.com/writers-perfectionism/

https://mandywallace.com/writing-perfectionist/

Log Lines and Story Flaws – Kristin Lamb

I don’t do this often, but this amazing blog post by Kristin Lamb about log lines and how they can help you not only figure out the gist of your story and it’s major conflicts, but also help you stay on track as you write it, is just amazing! Check it out:

https://authorkristenlamb.com/2018/09/fatal-flaws-story-structure/

Novels: Putting the Puzzle Together

Everyone has metaphors for the writing process. Myself, I’ve already written about how writing a book is like restoring an old car (https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2014/07/26/is-your-novel-a-rust-bucket-mine-is/), and this week, I came up with another metaphor for my young adult novel.

What I’ve got is a Ziploc bag full of puzzle pieces. I don’t know what the puzzle should look like. I don’t even know if all the pieces I have are from the same puzzle! One thing I’m sure of:  I do not have a complete puzzle.

So how do you put together a puzzle with no picture and no guidelines?

Good question. But this is how I often write novels. I get scenes in my head. Snippets of dialogue. A character doing something. They come to me, often as ephemeral and insistent as a wisp of smoke. Forcing me to notice them. (And sneeze.) And from there, the scene evolves. It may be a page or two. It might be twenty pages. Either way, it’s a scene. I don’t know exactly what happened to get us there, and I may not be sure what comes after. But I’ve got a scene in my head, and I write it Then And There, before it evaporates. Because once it evaporates, it’s gone and it will never come back.

soapboxNota Bene:  If a scene comes to you don’t think you’ll remember it later – you won’t!!!!! You won’t remember the exact dialogue, the exact sequence of events, and you’ll lose the magic of that moment. Just drop whatever you’re doing and go write it. Then. And. There.

So I write these scenes, and then I get to put them into some semblance of order, and then I get to figure out where the missing pieces are. Maybe I’ve got some sky, but only a handful of leaves to tell me that a tree should be there. Or maybe there’s supposed to be a covered bridge in the picture, but all I have is the road leading to it, and a bit of the roof. But if I know what should be there, I can figure out the rest.

And that’s what I have now. Is this one book or two? I can’t even tell you that much! When I started my first urban fantasy novel, it was one novel. That was it. One very simple novel. It’s since evolved into at least a six-book series and although I know exactly what’s going to happen, getting it started has been the issue, in large part because of the way I write – in these puzzle pieces. Where does this scene go? Before or after this one? Wait – who’s this person????!!!! Why are you in my novel???!!! I did not invite you!

You have to trust the process.

A few years ago I had a character – Shannon – walk onstage and make herself at home. She was about as welcome as a cockroach in a wedding cake, but she insisted on staying, and my MC, Erin, insisted on interacting with her. Now, I cannot imagine the novels without her. She is the perfect foil for Erin, and her choices and actions make life interesting for everyone. Had I not trusted that she had a place in my novel, if I had been completely welded to an outline, I’d have jettisoned her – and my novels would have suffered as a result.

Nicky’s story has been a little different, in large part because I’m working within a historic framework. I want to keep it as close to ‘real’ as I can, which even includes using actual newspaper articles from 1924. But there are scenes that need to be there, and I have to trust that Nicky has given them to me for a reason. The question is – as I read through the entire thing – where do all the scenes go? What’s missing? What has to go in that I haven’t written yet? And . . . is this one book, or two?

I’d only ever imagined writing one book. But the more I look at what I’ve done and what I have left to do, if this is one book, then it’s going to be as long as Harry Potter #5.

Still, I have to trust that I’m doing the right thing. E.L. Doctorow is credited with one of the most famous sayings about writing:

“Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

Since Nicky’s a rumrunner, this is very appropriate. 🙂 Sometimes, I feel like I’m driving like James and Richard in the Bolivia trip:  I’ve got two flashlights taped to the hood of my car! Not even headlights! Then, you just have to trust that the road is still there, even if you can’t see it very bloody well.

So if you’re not an outliner, if you can’t stand the thought of being shoehorned into a plot line, don’t feel you’re alone. Hey, at least someone didn’t just dump a bag of puzzle pieces in your lap and tell you to get to work. 🙂

Finding Inspiration for your Characters

41hjTdanuNL._SX347_BO1,204,203,200_Inspiration can come from the most unusual places.

This week, I’ve been reading a book by Malcolm Gladwell, David and Goliath:  Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants. I picked it up mostly because it was .99 at Goodwill, and also because it sounded interesting – I feel like a misfit most days, and I have my share of giants to take down! (Don’t we all, though?)

In this book, Gladwell discusses why the epic battle between David and Goliath is often misunderstood. He argues that you need to look at it in the historical context. David, a shepherd, was used to taking out would-be predators with his slingshot. It was not only the preferred weapon for defending your flock; it was the only weapon! So for him to walk out onto that field and take out Goliath – who anticipated hand-to-hand combat – in such a way shouldn’t actually surprise us at all. All David did was use Goliath’s own skills and assumptions against him.

That’s interesting, obviously, but Gladwell goes deeper, looking at famous people – some you may have never heard of before, like Jay Freireich, who pioneered the use of extra platelets to stop leukemia patients from bleeding to death, and developed the cocktail we now call chemotherapy. He argues, in part, that sometimes great adversity – losing a parent, having dyslexia, etc. – can actually fuel greatness in a person, because they learn to compensate and then succeed in spite of that.

But that’s not what got me totally interested. No, what had me reaching for my pen to scribble, in great big blue ink letters THIS IS NICKY!, was the idea of hits, near misses, and remote misses.

To explain, imagine you’re in the London Blitz of 1940 – 41. The German Luftwaffe is dropping bombs on the city almost every night. But night after night, you don’t get hit. Maybe the neighborhood over does. Maybe you know someone who was killed. Or maybe your house gets hit, but you survive without a scratch. You start to think hey, this is all right, it’s not great but I’m still here, so why bother worrying about it? And eventually, depending on your mindset, you might even start to think of yourself as invincible. Freaking Germans couldn’t hit the broadside of a barn, let alone my bloody house! Lousy shots, the lot of them. 

It sounds crazy. Totally crazy. But the reason I scribbled OMG this is Nicky! on pages was because it totally IS Nicky.

Nicky is my little 14-year old rumrunner. And he fits the entire profile of this book. He lost his dad at age 8. He had to support his family because his mother totally checked out. He’s the smallest kid in his class and is constantly being bullied, and has to learn to defend himself. And then there’s the rumrunning!

One thing I always sort of struggled with in my mind was the question of how likely it was that Nicky could/would survive so many go-rounds with the law and the Klan and still get away with it. I mean, he’s good enough to not only get away from the Klan/law in one scene, but also to make sure their cars go off in the creek; he eludes the Feds; he evades them again when he’s set up by a rival.

Sure. I set it up. Nicky’s a damn good driver, and his car is one of the best in the county. He should know – he helped build it. He’s got the skills. He’s got the guts. And he knows how to use his knowledge. Furthermore, he knows how to use the ‘knowledge’ of the Feds and the Klan against them. Who would think a runty 14-year old in a souped-up Model T could do all the things they do? But he does.

And there was tiny part of me that questioned if people would really believe it.

But, according to the Misses Theory above, if you have enough near and remote misses, you start to believe nothing can happen to you. And, the more trials and hardships you endure in your life early on, the more likely you are to take risks normal people wouldn’t take, simply because you have no other options. Nicky 100% fits that profile. He lost his dad, he could barely earn enough to make ends meet, he basically raised his twin siblings. By the time he’s forced into becoming a rumrunner, he has no other options. So between these two things – feeling invincible and being forced into a corner – it all makes perfect sense to me.

So if you’re struggling with character motivations,  you might want to see if there are any books out there that cover that character’s issues. Characters with issues are characters we care about, after all. We root for the underdog. Harry Potter should have died as a baby, but he didn’t – so he went into that final battle with Voldemort as the clear underdog, and yet (spoiler alert!) he still won. Seabiscuit was the underdog of the 1930s – there was no reason a small horse who’d never won a race in his life ought to be able to be a great racehorse, but he did it. A few years ago at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, a German Shepherd captured everyone’s hearts because he’d been rescued from an abusive situation in which he almost died – and yet went on to win Best in Group.

Underdogs have reasons for winning. Take inspiration from them. Take inspiration from psychology books, from self-help books, from everything around you. I had no idea David and Goliath was going to help me be more at peace with Nicky’s exploits – but it actually helped me understand that in truth, Nicky’s story is actually, already, the only way it could ever possibly be, because of who Nicky is.

Inspiration. Go get some!

 

Link to David and Goliath at Barnes & Noble:  https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/david-and-goliath-malcolm-gladwell/1115837698?ean=9780316204378#/

 

Rewrites: Knowing what to throw away – and what to keep

“Every gambler knows/that the secret to surviving/is knowing what to throw away/and knowing what to keep . . .” – Kenny Rogers, ‘The Gambler’ 

This is a line from Kenny Rogers’ song “The Gambler.” The song is about a young gambler who meets up with an old gambler, who gives him some sage advice about life before dying on the train bound for nowhere. A very cheery song.

But, just as the young gambler ‘found an ace that I could keep’ in that advice, maybe we can, too.

As writers, we also have to know what to throw away and what to keep. Rewrites abound with these choices. We’ve all read books – especially debut novels – where we think hmm, couldn’t that line or paragraph or entire chapter have been cut without doing anything to the book? And in truth, we’re probably right.

Of course, when it’s you in the writer’s seat, and it’s your baby you’r taking a red pen to, those choices are much harder to make! Once someone – a beta reader, perhaps – suggests, ever so gently, that perhaps this paragraph could be cut because .  . . we tend to instantly launch into defense mode. Truthfully? We know they’re probably right. But admitting that is so hard!

It’s really hard to know what to throw away. I’ve been working on that dratted middle part of my novel for the past week, rearranging scenes, editing others for tension and pace, and yes, cutting some entirely.

Oooh. Yeah. I hear the gasps. What do you mean, you cut? Lines? Oh, my goodness. How could you do that? Wait. You cut – gasp! – scenes? (Horrified silence that drags out . . .)

Yup. Scenes. Entire ones.

How do you know if things need to be cut? Well, if you’re like me, you spend 9 years – off and on – making small edits and revisions and hearing a little voice inside telling you that something’s Not Quite Right, but being unwilling to make the hard choices because that will mean Armageddon.

Let’s think about that little voice for a second.

We are writers. We are readers. At least, we’d better be. We know when something feels ‘off.’ We may not be able to pinpoint precisely what that is, but we know it, deep down. There’s a little hesitation when we read certain paragraphs. We gloss over some sentences, unwilling to look them in the eye. We frown over the transitions from one scene to another, or one chapter to another. We scrunch up our faces at character motives and don’t even get me started on how much we dread reading some dialogue! That’s the little voice writers have. It doesn’t magically appear. It’s developed over time, as we write, edit, read, write, edit, read, write . . . We get a feel for what works and what doesn’t, what our voice sounds like, when we’re imitating others.

In short, listen to the freaking little voice. You may not know what’s going on exactly, but stick a Post-It note on that page anyway. Put a frowny face on it. Just remind yourself that Here Be Something To Work On. Because that little voice? It’s there for a reason. It’s there to tell you how to make your novel better.

Another thing to keep in mind is the issue I’m having right now:  scenes that no longer fit. What do you do when you’ve revised and edited, and suddenly that pivotal scene in the middle, the one that once changed the entire thing for your characters, isn’t needed anymore? This is what I did to myself. I had a scene that – okay, let’s be honest. I knew it didn’t work. I knew it was out of character for my MC, Erin, and I knew my other MC, Kai, would never ever in a million years NEVER let her do that. But it didn’t matter. I couldn’t let it go.

And then I made some major changes earlier in the novel, and that scene is now . . . not necessary. So I cut it from the new draft. It just never got copied and pasted over. I’m still wrestling with whether this is good or not!

pointing+hand+vintage+image+graphicsfairy2But. Here’s the thing:  if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t belong in your novel.

For a long time I considered this scene sacred, integral to the novel (yes, despite my misgivings about it!). But here’s a sad fact:  if the scene doesn’t go in, it won’t matter. Seriously. It won’t matter to the novel at all.

 (At least, that’s what I’m telling myself. I’m not entirely convinced.)

There are other reasons to jettison paragraphs or entire scenes. One is simply that it doesn’t move the story forward. It might be pretty. It might be some of the best writing you’ve ever done. Does it add to the story in any meaningful way? Does it provide for character development, plot twists, new information? If not – let it go. Or, as Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch put it,

“Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it – wholeheartedly – and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.” (On the Art of Writing, 1916).

Or, if you prefer the great Stephen King:

“Mostly when I think of pacing, I go back to Elmore Leonard, who explained it so perfectly by saying he just left out the boring parts. This suggests cutting to speed the pace, and that’s what most of us end up having to do (kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings)” (On Writing) 

Or, you’d rather, Kurt Vonnegut:

“Your eloquence should be the servant of the ideas in your head. Your rule might be this: If a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.” — (How to Use the Power of the Printed Word)

(And please remember:  just because you don’t use it in THIS novel doesn’t mean you can’t rework it for another one! Nothing we write is every truly gone. Plus, your future readers will never know it used to be there. All they’ll notice is the nice, tight pacing, the flow from one scene to the next, the rapid plot development.)

Another reason is parallel to the one I mentioned above – after you’ve revised, you suddenly have a scene that just doesn’t fit anymore. Maybe your character’s motivations have changed. Maybe you’ve added – or deleted – a character. Whatever the reason, it’s just not necessary anymore. Take heart in the fact that you recognize this, and you’re ready to make the sacrifice for the novel’s greater good!

So if you’ve had paragraphs that you felt were extraneous, or lines of dialogue that don’t go anywhere, or even entire scenes that don’t work anymore, don’t be afraid to cut those bad boys right out of there. Cut them! Do it! Now!

Doesn’t that feel empowering? Scary, yes, but empowering?

Now do one more thing:  save your novel as an entirely new file. And do this every single time you make major revisions and cuts to your manuscript. I just spent about two hours trying to find an old scene that got cut, and now I need again. I was able to find it because I save my novels as new files all the time. No recreating it from memory. It just needs some tweaking to slide right into place.

This way, you can throw things away – and keep them.